Book Review: Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

Smokehouse is a book of linked stories set in southern Tasmania, more particularly, the region around Kettering and Bruny Island.

I visited this region only a few years ago and it’s a stunning landscape of rugged beauty. And Melissa Manning not only paints the landscape but she fully immerses the reader right into it.

“She walked down to the beach, sat in the sand throwing shells into the frothy swash of waves, and considered whether all of this might be a sign that it was a time to move on.”

The book begins with the title story Smokehouse Part 1 which is almost a novella about Joy, who with her husband builds a mud-brick home, a dream home away from the bustle of Hobart. Her new life begins to fracture and the consequences of her actions resonate not only on her family but within the small community around her.

“She had never expected to feel so absent, as though her identity had bled out into the fabric of their family. She longed to feel the margins of herself.”

The last story Smokehouse Part Two, set in Joy’s future, gives us a glimpse into her life as an older woman. In between are short stories whose characters link with the community or Joy’s life.

There was a lot I enjoyed. There is a tenderness in the tragedy and trauma. The reference to food brings joy and pain. “… she dished field mushrooms onto her side plate and ate them with her fingers, let the juices run own her chin and into her lap and tried not to think about the night to come. “

Each story is beautifully written and evocative. The characters are rich in detail and drawn so fully, you feel you know them, their pain, their joy and the problems they encounter. Manning treats the characters and the themes of grief, sorrow, health decline and loss with empathy and dignity.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and am not surprised it was shortlisted in 2021 for Queensland Literary Awards as well as Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a stunning debut by an extraordinary author. Highly recommend this one.

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